christmas

stillness

The streets are quiet. The week seems endless. This morning, at least, there is sun.

The writing is halting at best. A few notes before bed or an image on the way home from work that I jot down on a parking receipt while idling at a stop light. This waiting. For the new year to begin.

We returned from Rochester late at night in the cold dark, carried the sleeping boy to his bed, unloaded the car.

A stillness in the house, on the street – even down on the highway. In the office, I clear out old files, make lists, begin outlining the new year’s projects. People chatter in the hallway. They speak of their families and their travels. They tell of grandchildren and nieces and nephews. Their voices are animated and loud.

A soliloquy on stillness from Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge:

O night without objects. O out impassive windows, O carefully closed doors; settings from olden times, taken on, credited, never completely understood. O stillness in the staircase, stillness from adjoining rooms, stillness high up on the ceiling. O mother: O you, the only one who fended off all this stillness from me in the days of childhood. Who takes the stillness upon herself, saying: don’t be frightened, it’s me. Who has the courage in the night to completely be this shelter for what is afraid, what is desperate from fear. You strike a light, and are already the noise. And you hold the light in front of you and say: It’s me, don’t be frightened. And you put it down, slowly, and there is no doubt: it is you, you are the light around the kind, familiar things that are there without any deeper meaning, good, simple, unambiguous.

A comfort in returning to stillness. To the familiar worn objects of the home we have made. After dinner with M.’s parents, we walk them back to their rooms in the assisted living facility they now call home. In each room, there are objects I recognize. Quilted wall hangings, photographs. Books. His mother asks me for a tissue from the bathroom and beneath the mirror, I see she has taped a series of photos of my son and I pause there at the sink to keep myself from weeping.

This time last year, we peeled clementines and ate them standing up in our socked feet, all of us crowded into the kitchen of the family house. It is a bit of foolish sentimentality, I know, that keeps me returning there in my memory, but the end of the year always finds me wistful, vulnerable, all the old wounds open. This season with its expectations. This season with all its promises. The pressures this season exerts on the heart.

We spend Christmas morning at M.’s sister’s house and watch our son as he tears through gift after gift, the wrapping paper crumpled and strewn all over the carpeted floor. He is exuberant, loud. For a time, don’t we all rest our sadness down on his small head? The fullness of him, the roundness of his cheeks, his mouth still sticky from a rushed breakfast of cinnamon rolls and apple slices. He is alive and electric and wide-eyed. His delight.

The drive home is quiet. The rest areas desolate, gray snow piled up in the parking lots. I sleep lightly while M. drives the endless highways. Our boy sleeps, too.

Our families are scattered and we always end up traveling for Christmas. A few years ago, we started planning our own celebration on the weekend before the holiday, so we could have a day in our own home, a day we were all together, our tiny family. We maintained some of the rituals from each of our childhoods – for me, the table covered with sweets on Christmas Eve and for M., waffles for breakfast on Christmas. One year, it was a full week before the holiday, but we didn’t care. It was a Saturday and in the morning, we stumbled downstairs and gathered around the tree in our night clothes, exchanged our gifts. And as we all sit there in the luxury of a few lazy hours, a light snow falls. By afternoon, everything – the sidewalks, the front lawn, the porch steps, the tree branches – is still and quiet and shrouded in the freshly-fallen snow.

sugarplums

The week has been a long one. Tending to the busy things. But by the end of it, I find myself at tables with fine companions and this brings comfort. Meals where we can linger – just a bit – over coffee and talk about our plans for the holidays.

I will admit that this season does not find me at my best. The pace of it, the crush of holiday crowds – impatient, tightly-wound. The relentless nostalgia for Christmases past, which were themselves, a kind of longing for some other thing just out of reach. The press to create a kind of magic: To fashion an island – of juniper and pine, of cinnamon and nutmeg and peppermint; of tiny white lights and velvet ribbons – in the middle of a vast ocean of indifference.

My mother’s mother brought glass Christmas tree ornaments from the island of San Miguel. How they traveled – from San Miguel to New Bedford to Mt. Vernon – remains something of a mystery, but as the story goes, these six particular ornaments – simple blown glass – had been passed down to my mother with a certain solemnity. Each year, in January, she would carefully wrap these in white tissue paper, then newspaper, then rest them in their own small box which was placed on top of the other storage boxes that held the holiday decorations. And each year, after Thanksgiving, these were the first to be unwrapped and looped – by their frayed and faded ribbons – over the fullest, most prominent branches of the tree.

One year before they separate for the last time, my parents are arguing in front of the tree. They are in the process of decorating. I have a toy camera that I wear on a strap around my neck, and as they work – hanging an ornament, then stepping back to assess – I pretend to capture the moments on film. I am too young to understand the nature of their conflict, but I remember that their voices suddenly become raised and instead of the back and forth between the tree and the boxes of ornaments that lay open on the couch, they stand a few feet away from each other, seemingly frozen to the spot.

Either it escalates very quickly, or I am watching for longer than I remember because the next thing I remember is my father, reaching out and plucking one of these Portuguese glass baubles from the tree, and holding it up by its ribbon – pinched between two fingers – to my mother’s face. She shakes her head slowly at him and takes a step back. In my memory, she is still shaking her head, her eyes fixed on his face, when he lifts his hand up higher, opens his fingers and lets the ball fall to the floor, where it shatters, a sickening, heart-stopping sound. The next five follow fast: grabbed and thrown down so forcefully that little bits of glass fly up in all directions. I don’t know when my mother leaves the room, but I know that by the time my father is done, and as he shuffles through the shards and past me to the kitchen, she is gone.

After my father left, I took on more of the holiday decorating myself, eschewing the blinking multicolored bulb lights in favor of white ones, leaving many of the storage boxes of my childhood untouched. I developed themes for the tree – one year, only pink and gold ribbons, the next only unpainted wooden ornaments. I took a certain satisfaction in the rather generic, showroom appeal of these trees – stripped then, as they were, of any particular family history. Each year, a blank canvas. Each year, a narrative wiped clean of the past.

My favorite Christmas tradition of childhood was this: On Christmas Eve, after dinner, my mother would set out dozens of glass bowls filled with candies on the low round coffee table in the living room. Foil-wrapped chocolates, candy canes, jellied fruit slices, caramels. Chocolate-covered marshmallows. Licorice whips. Truffles. On this one night, there were no rules, no limits. We could eat whatever we wanted, how ever much we wanted. So, for the first half-hour after this dazzling display appeared, we would walk the perimeter of the table, my sister and me, hardly stopping, reaching for everything our sweaty little hands could grab, eating as we went. Wrappers lay on the floor where they were dropped, marking the circular path we took, around and around until finally, we’d begin to slow. We’d grab handfuls of what we could carry to take with us, to sit down on the rug, lean back against the couch, with our legs stretched out in front of us. If ever we were happier, giddier than in those hours – with little piles of candies in our laps, our mouths sugar-coated, our hearts racing – I certainly can’t recall.